Search Saturday July 24, 2004

Arroyo's burst of defiant nationalism
Philippine withdrawal from Iraq
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Saturday, July 24, 2004

HONG KONG: Not since the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to throw out the US. military bases has Philippine foreign policy made such an abrupt change of course. There are indeed similarities between local attitudes to the United States then and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's response to the Iraqi rebel threat to behead truck driver Angelo dela Cruz.

For many in the outside world - and the United States, Britain and Australia in particular - the Philippine decision to bring forward the withdrawal of its contingent in Iraq to save the life of a contract worker was a surrender to terror.

But for the majority of Filipinos it was something else entirely. First, it was an assertion of national sovereignty. No amount of derision by the former colonial ruler, seen by many to have never shed its "little brown brother" attitudes, could deter the government from following what it thought to be in the national interest of a country whose main export is human talent.

Secondly it was an illustration that in a democratic country where almost every family has a close relative working somewhere overseas, the fate of those workers is of huge political significance. For once, populist instincts and the perceived interests of the poorer classes triumphed over the instincts of a ruling elite reluctant to offend America.

The desire to save dela Cruz was also a reflection of the widespread belief that the Philippines should never have an official commitment in Iraq in the first place. There were limits to which even Filipinos would go in doing the West's dirty work.

Arroyo's willingness to accede to US. requests was a sign of her weakness at the time. The government needed money; Arroyo, facing an election, needed a state visit to the United States.

The nation still needs the money, but Arroyo has now been elected. Her position at home has been strengthened and she saw it as in her interest, at the beginning of a six-year term, to build on nationalist credentials which she inherited from her late father, President Diosdedo Macapagal, but which had been badly dented in the previous two years.

All this may be short-sighted, serving only to lose needed economic help for Manila while doing nothing to improve the opportunities and risk levels for the million or so Filipino workers in the Middle East. However, it has been viewed with some sympathy in an East Asia which at best has been reluctant to commit to Iraq, and in some cases has been highly critical of the Philippines' perceived subservience. Only the overriding importance of the North Korea nuclear issue keeps Korean forces in Iraq.

Manila and some of its neighbors have also been irritated by what they see as Western obsessions with the supposed links between the loose regional militant grouping Jemaah Islamiyah and Al Qaeda. Arroyo was widely criticized for allowing US. forces to be based in the southern island of Basilan as part of President George W. Bush's "war on terror."

For the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation front insurgency in Mindanao/Sulu is a far more important issue which has long threatened national integrit. Yet the West is seen to be interested only if connections with Al Qaeda can be claimed.

The Philippines also feels that its military ties with Washington have been of no help in deterring Chinese encroachment into areas of the South China Sea close to the Philippines.

The Philippine withdrawal from Iraq is partly an ill-considered burst of gut nationalism, of a sort which occurs periodically in a country which at other times fawns on its former ruler. Resentment coexists with the knowledge that tens of millions want to migrate to the United States, but only a few will succeed.

But Arroyo's action can also be seen in the context of a much wider resentment at the way countries have been dragged into the Iraq imbroglio.